#Nemesis: ‘better than a friend or a lover’

Haters gonna hate: Can you name these six famous rivalries from history? (Answers in the Q&A.)

Everyone needs a nemesis. Or do they? Social media is abuzz with the idea. And history is full of arch rivals who pushed each other to be better — or drove each other to death.

It all began with the writer Roxane Gay, who has been tweeting about her unnamed “nemeses” for years. “Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone but my nemesis,” she wrote in February. Earlier, in December 2018: “My nemesis is shining today. Plotting to defeat her.” Way back in 2011, at a Scrabble tournament: “My nemesis just showed up. I want to destroy him.”

Now the idea has caught on. This week, The Atlantic published an article by the journalist Taylor Lorenz entitled, “Get yourself a nemesis.”

“A nemesis is a special kind of foe,” she explains. “It’s not someone you hate with every inch of your being: [...] you compete with them.” In the end, they “push you to work harder”.

She cites a 2014 study which found that runners are about five seconds per kilometre faster when competing against a top rival. Lorenz writes that since she selected another journalist to be her own nemesis, “I’ve noticed myself working harder and putting in longer hours.”

Of course, the idea is nothing new. History is filled with famous rivals.

Today, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are remembered as two of the greatest artists ever to live. When they were both alive in Renaissance Florence, their rivalry was so intense that Leonardo left for France just to escape it.

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison were pioneers of electricity. Their AC/DC feud over the best way to deliver electrical currents is legendary.

The day after Edison died, Tesla told The New York Times that Edison was a genius, but that his methods were inefficient, and he “lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene”.

The rivalry between cousins Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots dominated British politics in the 16th century and was made into a Hollywood film last year. It ended when Elizabeth (somewhat reluctantly) sentenced Mary to death.

Meanwhile, the story of US Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr has gained new fame through the musical Hamilton. Their political rivalry also ended in bloodshed: Burr shot and killed Hamilton in a duel in 1804, destroying his own reputation in the process.

Best frenemies

Of course, no one thinks that Gay actually wants to hurt her nemeses. For her and Lorenz, it is a fun way to push themselves to new heights. “I am able to be kind, to be wildly productive AND have 9 nemeses who I will bring down,” Gay tweeted. “It’s fine if you think it’s silly.”

But is it really healthy to pit yourself against other people? The examples from history are extreme, but they have a serious point: true rivalries can end up consuming people, destroying their careers or even ending their lives. Perhaps the only person you should compete with is yourself.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever had a “nemesis”? (No naming names!)
  2. Is it good to be competitive?


  1. As a class, list as many fictional rivalries from films or literature as you can. Then, discuss what lessons can be drawn from them.
  2. Choose another rivalry from history (or currently) and summarise what happened. Did it help the two competitors? Or destroy them?

Some People Say...

“Rivalry of scholars advances wisdom.”

Hebrew proverb

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The rivals in the image at the top of this article are, clockwise from top left: Alexander Hamilton vs Aaron Burr; Nikola Tesla vs Thomas Edison; Leonardo da Vinci vs Michelangelo; Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier; Elizabeth I vs Mary, Queen of Scots; Taylor Swift vs Kanye West.
What do we not know?
How far these rivalries helped or hindered some of these subjects. Take Leonardo and Michelangelo for example. Leonardo was an established artist when Michelangelo first emerged as an artistic prodigy. Michelangelo seemed to dislike Leonardo and publicly insulted him. Around the same time, Leonardo went through a period of self-doubt. Was Michelangelo jealous of Leonardo’s success, and driven to work harder to prove himself? Or would they have achieved more if they had collaborated?

Word Watch

Roxane Gay
The author of several books — most famously, Bad Feminist, a collection of essays on feminism.
“Driven to Win: Rivalry, Motivation, and Performance,” published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in July 2014.
Renaissance Florence
A period of European history between the 14th and 17th centuries. It was a time of artistic and scientific discovery, much of it taking place in Italy. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo both criticised each other’s work, and both were hired to paint the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, in competition with each other.
Not the rock band! AC stands for “alternating current”, Tesla’s idea for an electrical charge which changes direction. DC is “direct current”, Edison’s preferred option in which the charge flows in one direction. Now, both types are used for different things.
Mary was the granddaughter of one of Henry VIII’s sisters. The pair were queens of England and Scotland at the same time.
Founding Fathers
Hamilton was America’s first treasury secretary. Burr was vice president to Thomas Jefferson.

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